Positive reinforcement is the best way to train a dog. But all those food rewards can add up and cause pups to gain excess weight during training. How can you keep dogs from packing on the pounds while still giving them the repetitive rewarding that successful training demands? Read on.
The 10% Rule
Canine nutritionists recommend that dogs get no more than 10% of their daily caloric intake from treats, with the other 90% coming from a well-balanced nutritional food. A look at a 30-pound dog’s daily caloric requirements shows how easy it is to go over this 10% limit when repetitive rewarding is used in training.
A popular formula for calculating a dog’s total daily caloric Resting Energy Requirement (RER) is: the dog’s weight in kilograms x 30 + 70. This would give our 30-pound (13.6-kilogram) dog a total daily requirement of 478 calories, with about 48 calories (10%) allowed to come from treats. (Keep in mind this is the basic “resting” requirement. The RER formula may be adjusted based on factors like age, activity level and reproductive status, so always consult a veterinarian to find out how many calories any specific dog needs daily.)
Unfortunately, our 30-pound pup can easily be given well over her entire 48-calorie treat allotment in just one training session. Too often, high-fat foods such as cheese are used as training reinforcers. A one-inch cube of cheese may contain 60-110 calories, depending on the type. Even if this cube were to be cut into 8 very tiny pieces (not so easy to do), our example dog could be given only 6 treats a day at most –and a mere 3.5 treats if the highest-fat cheese were used– without going over the 48-calorie limit. That’s not going to go very far in teaching training commands!
This brings up another strategy trainers and pet parents can use to keep pups-in-training from packing on the pounds: give fewer rewards. Research has shown that once a dog has learned a command or behavior, he may actually retain that behavior better if he is not rewarded every time he performs it.
For example, once a dog reliably obeys the “Sit” command, try withholding the treat reward and giving it to him only every second, third or fourth time he sits on command, varying the intervals. Behaviorists call this intermittent reinforcement.
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